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NASCAR fans have their booing priorities all mixed up
'99 News
John Sturbin, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Philadelphia, Penn. (Aug. 30, 1999)
As the NASCAR Winston Cup Series rolls into Darlington, S.C., for the most revered of its summer holiday weekends, one would have thought that Dale Earnhardt had shot the President.

With their voices and via e-mail, NASCAR fans have registered a resounding thumbs down for Earnhardt and the bump pass that sent race-leader Terry Labonte spinning and ``The Intimidator'' into Victory Lane at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway on Saturday night.

And what was that strange sound raining down on Earnhardt as he exited his black-and-banged Chevy?

Boos? For the sport's second seven-time Winston Cup champion? For the driver who typically receives more cheers during pre-race introductions than any Cup driver, and more than Miss Winston? Boos for the anti-Jeff Gordon? For doing precisely what has made ``Ironhead'' the richest driver in motorsports history -- and in the eyes of many -- its prototypical competitor?

``The race fans are critics, and everyone has their opinion of what they saw last week,'' Earnhardt said in his ongoing defense. ``It happened. I wasn't trying to wreck Terry. I hate that it happened, but it did.''

Two issues stick out in the aftermath of Earnhardt vs. Labonte:

What do NASCAR's brand-loyal fans really want from Earnhardt, or any driver, in the sport's premier division? Do fans want the ``boulevard racing'' that superspeedway mogul Bruton Smith so detests, or do fans want the type of racing that has made NASCAR the runaway success that it is today?

And, can any NASCAR official define what constitutes a proper/improper bump pass?

That certainly was not the case Saturday night, when Jerry Nadeau got penalized two laps for rapping Dale Jarrett in the rear end -- long before Earnhardt launched Labonte into the spin cycle. Why was Nadeau nabbed and Earnhardt let off? The appearance is that Earnhardt, as Labonte and several drivers suggested postrace, received preferential treatment equal to his stature.

That also could be the interpretation when the case of Rudd vs. Allison is reviewed. Ricky Rudd was involved in a similar last-lap incident with Davey Allison at Sears Point (Calif.) Raceway in 1991. NASCAR accused Rudd of spinning Allison out of the lead as the two headed to the white flag. Rudd was penalized 15 seconds, and finished second.

``My feeling then was it was every man for himself on the final lap,'' said Rudd, who finished third Saturday in a battered Ford. ``NASCAR said that wasn't the way it was. I didn't agree then, but I took what they said and moved on. Maybe it's changed since then. I don't know.''

Given the veiled threats of retaliation mumbled by Labonte after the race, NASCAR senior vice president Mike Helton needs to address that issue before they drop the green flag and the chicken wings at the Pepsi Southern 500 on Sunday.

As for the issue of booing Earnhardt, perhaps a quick review of NASCAR's first 50 years is in order. The hoopla surrounding NASCAR's golden anniversary in 1998 produced any number of top-10 lists, including 10 best races. ``Sports Illustrated's'' list was typical, and it was topped by the 1976 Daytona 500. That race featured a last-lap exchange of fenders between leader David Pearson and arch-rival Richard Petty in the 31-degree Turn 4 banking, sending both cars careening into the concrete.

Pearson won the race only because he pushed in the clutch and kept his Mercury running during the spin, allowing him to limp across the finish line -- which Petty's stalled Dodge fell 50 feet short of passing.

It has been called the greatest race in NASCAR history, and both drivers emerged as cult heroes and even respectful friends.

Ironically, Earnhardt joined Labonte as only the second driver with 600 career Cup starts at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International last month. They are proud members of the Class of 1979, with nine championships between them. They know the written and unwritten rules of NASCAR better than you or me or Helton, or anyone who never has driven a Cup car. And they know the rules as well as Jimmy Spencer and Bobby Hamilton and anyone currently driving a Cup car.

And so, on Saturday night, Labonte overtook Earnhardt for the lead as the two took the white flag. The damning contact took place as they barged through the 36-degree banking in Turn 2. Seconds before, all of Earnhardt's loyal fans were on their feet -- begging their hero to do whatever it took to win the race, just like he used to in his glory days.

``Was I not supposed to try to pass him back?'' Earnhardt asked, incredulously.

If he had not, then Dale Earnhardt should have been booed.